Five days before taking the oath of office, Barack Obama called on the millions of people who had actively campaigned for him to be the engine for real change in America: "I don't want them to just sit around and wait for me to do something. I want them to be pushing their agendas."
He asked for it, so let's shove this agenda into his line of vision: jobs. Middle-class jobs. Jobs with a future. Jobs doing useful work that contributes to American progress and the common good. Lots and lots of those jobs.
Obama has talked often about the need for more jobs. But he's put little presidential heft into creating them, instead focusing most on extending unemployment benefits to assuage some of the pain of being jobless.
Incredibly, he tried for a while to rationalize his "banker-first" Wall Street bailout as a jobs stimulus! The argument went like this: rescuing failed bankers might induce them to make loans to corporations, which then might increase corporate production, which then might cause corporate executives to hire some Americans (unless, of course, they used the capital to expand operations in China). That's a lot of "mights," and, as we've seen, the money mostly remains in the tight clutches of the bailed-out bankers, producing little "trickle-down" benefit.
Meanwhile, the nation's official unemployment rate is soaring to 10 percent and beyond. That's not a statistic — it's 15 million struggling people. Plus their families. Their numbers nearly double when we add in part-time workers who need and want full-time jobs, as well as other underemployed and discouraged workers.
Meet Debbie Kransky, a striver from America's great middle class who's now struggling. Living in Milwaukee, this intelligent and hard-working 51-year-old was offed by a medical firm in February and has been jobless ever since, despite being constantly on the hunt. Her unemployment benefits have run out, and her small life savings have been depleted.
"I've got October rent," she told a New York Times reporter. "After that, I don't know. I've never lived month to month my entire life. I'm just so scared, I can't even put it in words."
Not only are there millions of Debbies out here, but there are also many more millions who feel they're next. They know that there are already six "officially unemployed" people (not counting those part-timers) for every job opening that becomes available in our country today.
Yet, they now hear economists, pundits and politicians from both parties cheerfully chirping that the recession is "over." Obama himself, when asked about the oxymoron of a "jobless recovery," responded with this breezy insight: "As you know, jobs tend to be a lagging indicator; they come last."
Excuse me? Jobs are not an "indicator." They are the substance of a healthy economy, the sustainer of families, the lifeblood of our middle-class society.
FDR, when he faced deep and spreading national insecurity, made jobs first — not last. And so should Obama. America has plenty of work that needs doing, work that would strengthen our country for the long haul. It's time for him to launch a long-term, nationwide revitalization effort to rebuild and expand our essential infrastructure (from bridges to water systems) and also to create the framework for a green economy — everything from rapid expansion of renewable energy systems to building high-speed networks that link our population corridors.
As he began his campaign, Obama declared: "I am running because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now.' I am running because I believe there's such a thing as being too late."
Yes, there is. So get moving! Grab the urgency of this moment, and turn people's rising anxiety into a new can-do sense of confidence by putting Americans to work. Instead of investing in Wall Street elites, invest in "percolate-up" economics based on ordinary people working to renew and reinvigorate our country at the grassroots level. Now would not be too soon to start.